A pet chameleon (Johnny Depp) becomes stranded in the Mojave Desert after his terrarium falls from his owners' car by accident. He meets an armadillo named Roadkill (Alfred Molina) who is seeking the mystical "Spirit of the West". While wandering the desert, he narrowly avoids being eaten by a vicious red-tailed hawk before meeting the desert iguana Beans (Isla Fisher). Beans takes him to Dirt, an Old West town populated by desert animals.
The chameleon presents himself to the townsfolk as a tough drifter named "Rango". He quickly runs afoul of outlaw Gila monster Bad Bill (Ray Winstone), but avoids a shootout when Bill is scared off by the hawk's return. Rango is chased by the hawk until he accidentally knocks down an empty water tower which crushes the predator. The town mayor (Ned Beatty), an elderly tortoise, appoints Rango as the new sheriff. Meanwhile, the townsfolk worry that with the hawk dead, the gunslinger Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), who is afraid of hawks, will return.
After discovering Dirt's water reserves — stored in the town bank inside a water cooler bottle — to be near empty, a skeptical Beans demands Rango investigate where the water has gone. That night, Rango inadvertently assists a trio of bank robbers, led by a mole named Balthazar (Harry Dean Stanton), mistaking them for prospectors. The townsfolk find their water bottle stolen the next day, so Rango organizes a posse and track the robbers to their hideout. They fight Balthazar's clan over the stolen water bottle before discovering it to be empty. The robbers profess that they found it empty, but the posse brings them to town for trial.
Rango confronts the mayor about his buying of the land around Dirt, but the mayor denies any wrongdoing and shows Rango that he is building a modern city with the purchased land. The mayor then summons Rattlesnake Jake, who forces Rango to admit that he lied to the townsfolk and runs him out of town. Falling unconscious, Rango wakes and meets the Spirit of the West (Timothy Olyphant), whom Rango identifies as the Man with No Name. The Spirit inspires Rango, telling him, "No man can walk out on his own story."
With the aid of Roadkill and mystical moving yuccas, Rango learns that Dirt's water supply is controlled by an emergency shut-off valve in a water pipeline to Las Vegas, which the mayor has been manipulating to cause a drought so he could buy the land. Rango returns to Dirt to challenge Jake to a duel, a diversion so the yuccas can turn the pipeline's valve to flood the town. The mayor, however, forces Rango to surrender by threatening Beans' life, and locks them inside the glass bank vault to drown. He then tries to shoot Jake with Rango's gun, intending to kill Jake along with the rest of the Old West, but the gun is empty. Rango has taken the bullet, which he uses to crack the glass and shatter the vault, freeing himself and Beans. Impressed, Jake thanks Rango and drags the mayor into the desert. The citizens of Dirt celebrate the return of the water and recognize Rango as their hero.
The film was produced by Nickelodeon Movies, Gore Verbinski's production company Blind Wink, and Graham King's GK Films. The CGI animation was created by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), marking its first full-length animated feature. ILM usually does visual effects for live-action films. It is also the first animated film for Verbinski. During voice recording, the actors received costumes and sets to "give them the feel of the Wild West"; star Johnny Depp had 20 days in which to voice Rango; and the filmmakers scheduled the supporting actors to interact with him. Verbinski said his attempt with Rango was to do a "small" film after the large-scale Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, but that he underestimated how painstaking and time-consuming animated filmmaking is.
The film contains a number of references to movie Westerns and other films, including The Shakiest Gun in the West, A Fistful of Dollars, Chinatown, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, Cat Ballou, Raising Arizona, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; and references to earlier ILM work, including the dogfight in the Death Star trench in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Verbinski has also cited El Topo as an influence on the film.
In a discussion about the nature of contemporary animated features, Verbinski said in December 2011,
There are shackles with the budgets and the profit margins. You want to compete with what they're doing at Pixar and DreamWorks. There's a price tag with that just in terms of achieving that quality level. What happened to the Ralph Bakshis of the world? We’re all sitting here talking about family entertainment. Does animation have to be family entertainment? I think at that cost, yes. There's the bull's-eye you have to hit, but when you miss it by a little bit and you do something interesting, the bull's-eye is going to move. Audiences want something new; they just can't articulate what.
Rango's teaser trailer was released on June 9, 2010, along with the film's official site, RangoMovie.com. It shows an open desert highway and an orange, wind-up plastic fish floating slowly across the road. On June 28, 2010, the first poster was released, showing the character Rango. A two-minute film trailer was released June 29, 2010. Another trailer was released December 14, 2010. A 30-second spot was made specifically to run during Super Bowl XLV on February 6, 2011.
The film was released on Blu-ray and DVD on July 15, 2011. The release had been produced as a two-disc Blu-ray, DVD, and "Digital Copy" combo pack with both the theatrical and an extended version of the film, cast and crew commentary, deleted scenes, and featurettes.
The extended version adds a final scene with the flooded town now a beach resort renamed Mud, and Rango riding out to deal with news that Bad Bill is causing trouble elsewhere.
Rango, which was distributed by Paramount Pictures, earned $123,477,607 in North America and $122,246,996 in other countries for a total $245,724,603. It is the 23rd highest-grossing film of 2011 worldwide.
In North America, Rango debuted in 3,917 theaters, grossing $9,608,091 on its first day and $38,079,323 during its opening weekend, ranking number one at the box office. On March 26, 2011 it became the first film of 2011 to cross the $100 million mark in North America.
In markets outside North America, during its first weekend, it earned $16,770,243 in 33 countries. It topped the overseas box office two times in March 2011.
With its distribution contract with DreamWorks Animation set to be concluded in 2012, Paramount Pictures, pleased by the performance of this film, announced plans to establish its own animation department.
The film holds an 87% rating on the film critics aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, based on 214 reviews, with an average rating of 7.6/10. The site's consensus says, "Rango is a smart, giddily creative burst of beautifully animated entertainment, and Johnny Depp gives a colorful vocal performance as a household pet in an unfamiliar world." Another review-aggregation website, Metacritic, reported that the film had been given an average rating of 75 out of 100, indicating "generally favorable reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "C+" on an A+ to F scale.
Richard Corliss of Time applauded the "savvy humor" and called the voice actors "flat-out flawless." He later named it one of the 10 best movies of 2011, saying, "In a strong year for animation ... Rango was the coolest, funniest and dagnab-orneriest of the bunch." Bob Mondello of National Public Radio observed that "Rango's not just a kiddie-flick (though it has enough silly slapstick to qualify as a pretty good one). It's a real movie lover's movie, conceived as a Blazing Saddles-like comic commentary on genre that's as back-lot savvy as it is light in the saddle." Frank Lovece of Film Journal International, noting the nervous but improvising hero's resemblance to the Don Knotts character in The Shakiest Gun in the West, echoed this, saying that "with healthy doses of Carlos Castaneda, Sergio Leone, Chuck Jones and Chinatown ... this [is] the kid-movie equivalent of a Quentin Tarantino picture. There's no gory violence or swearing, of course, but there sure is a film buff's parade of great movie moments." Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four out of four stars calling the film "some kind of a miracle: An animated comedy for smart moviegoers, wonderfully made, great to look at, wickedly satirical.... The movie respects the tradition of painstakingly drawn animated classics, and does interesting things with space and perspective with its wild action sequences."
After praising "the brilliance of its visuals," Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal wrote, "The narrative isn't really dramatic, ... [but] more like a succession of picturesque notions that might have flowed from DreamWorks or Pixar while their story departments were out to lunch."
In one of the more negative reviews, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune acknowledged its "considerable care and craft" but called it "completely soulless" and that watching it "with a big suburban preview audience was instructive. Not much laughter. Moans and sobs of pre-teen fright whenever Rattlesnake Jake slithered into view, threatening murder."
The Sacramento, California-based anti-smoking organization Breathe California regards the film a public health hazard; it said there were at least 60 instances of smoking in the film. Because of this, some of the anti-smoking organizations, including Breathe California, petitioned for the film to receive an R rating instead of the original PG rating received by the Motion Picture Association of America. However, no change was made, and the film maintained its PG rating.
Rango is the first Nickelodeon Movies film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Film and the first Nickelodeon movie to be nominated for the award since Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius. It is the first time since the 2006 film Happy Feet that the award did not go to either a Disney or Pixar film. It is the 5th non-Disney/Pixar film to win Best Animated Film.
Electronic Arts released a video game of the same name based on the film. It is rated E10+ and was released for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Nintendo DS, and Wii.
Funtactix launched Rango: The World, a browser-based virtual world set in the Rango universe, on March 4, 2011, the day of the film's release.